Day 3 – Tuesday, February 19, 2013
We woke up again in Havana. It is getting warmer – at least the sun is out. After breakfast I made it to the roof to catch the view. Wow! It was very nice, but you could see the layer of smog that hovers over the city. Still – with the sun out – everything had a special quality!
Wilhelmina (one of our group members) and I spent some time figuring out how to do a continuous panorama with the iPhone. I will include one in the blog pictures so you can compare. The biggest question is: How big is the file? Is it sufficient to print – or even display on the blog?
Our license for this trip is a people-to-people experience, and so our activities are not going to follow a typical tourist itinerary, though we weave the required encounters in around hitting the major “must sees.” Each day we had a series of meetings, visits or lectures that were designed to put us into direct contact with Cubans and ask a lot of questions. Tuesday was one of our busiest days.
Today our morning itinerary is to visit the Cuban Jurists’ Association – correct translation would be “The Cuban Bar Association”. The location was in Vedado, one of the fancy neighborhoods before the “triumph of the Revolution”. On the major streets the houses appeared well taken care of, but on the side streets, not so much. The mansion where the lawyers association could be described as “government run-down chic.” (I was seriously warned off the bathroom!)
Here we met two interesting people. The first to talk to us was Dra. Doris Quintana, a law professor at the University of Havana and the coordinator for all the American groups that visit the jurists’ association. She spoke to us in English. Thanks to Gerry’s intervention (they put him up on the dais to help Zoe translate the more technical things about the economy and finance) she talked about and answered some of our questions about the status of women in Cuba.
Dra. Quintana was proudly rattling off statistics about the percentages of women in the workforce and in professional positions. I wrote in my notebook that those statistics are usually the story in second & third world countries where there is not enough work, so men take jobs as soon as they can get them and women stay in school. She gave it away though when she said “these are good positions in the government.” In other words, they are underpaid – all government workers earn something that averages at “peanuts”. The National Assembly is 45% women. Maybe we should push for appointments to our legislative bodies – it might be a faster way of nearing parity than expecting it through elections … (Sorry, the feminist in me is making rash, dangerous statements!) Domestic violence is a problem here, just as it is a problem in the rest of the world.
Perhaps it is the “party line” but she said (and Zoe concurred some days later) that women are not discriminated against in the public sphere – but at home, “machismo reigns.” (When Zoe and I talked about it near the end of the trip, she was really surprised that equality for women was a problem in the US…maybe a 25 year old American girl would be just as naïve…).
Our other speaker was a retired supreme court judge. He spoke in Spanish and his attitude was a real put-off. He seemed like he was so bored! His name was Dr. Epidio Perez, and he was so repetitive, flashing around his multi-syllabic words (same ones over and over) that my notebook summed it up as “blah, blah, blah”. It was hard to focus on anything he said.
However, I did catch a few fun and fascinating facts:
- A gallon of paint in Cuba costs 75% of a month’s salary. No wonder everything looks so decrepit.
- The official story is that the economic model that Cuba was following post-revolution (the triumph of) is obsolete and needed to be changed.
- There are 313 new guidelines from the 6th Congress of the Communist Party aimed at measures to improve the standard of living and productivity. (We have seen a few in action already). They are being implemented step-by-step.
- Though the State cannot be absent from the new model, it needs to be a mid-point (not the entire thing). The State still needs to play a role in health care and education, sports and culture. (Note that sports and culture were emphasized to the same extent as health care and education.)
- Agriculture and services are moving to a model based upon cooperatives.
- People can now buy and sell the property given to them by the State (confiscated from those who left the island).
- As of January, there is a no longer a travel ban for Cubans -if they can afford a plane ticket (a big if) they can travel abroad.
- Remittances from families abroad are a seriously important part of the Cuban economy today, and they intend to grow that!
Mind you – these are the things that Dr. Perez told us. We had no way of knowing whether they are true or not. I am just reporting them to you. It is food for thought. Of course, he also blamed the rest of the world for not wanting to extend credit to Cuba…despite that Cuba has a huge outstanding and seemingly unpayable debt to the former Soviet Union (not sure where that stands now that there is no Soviet Union…) As far as the US is concerned, Cuba’s choice of allies is pretty suspect: Venezuela and Angola. Probably not a club we would end the embargo to join. The embargo is of course the ultimate source of all Cuba’s economic problems (not their reliance on a single crop – sugar – and a single friend – the USSR).
Dr. Perez changed his tune radically when he found out that Gerry and I live in Puerto Rico. Oh do you know Tono Andreu? We do. Instantly a whole different person emerged from Dr. Epidio’s shell. Some things are the same the world over!
From here, Dr. Epidio and Dra. Doris joined us to visit the Gran Sinagoga Bet Shalom. We learned a little about the history of the Jewish community in Cuba. I asked a question about how the government’s ban on religious observance had affected the Cuban Jews and our speaker jumped all over me to say that there was no religious discrimination in Cuba. OK, then. I did find it interesting that their synagogue was built (and restored) with a women’s gallery – though they no longer use it for that.
Time for lunch! This time we head for a restaurant on the water with a view towards Havana. It was on the grounds of the Morro fortress ( Yes, same name as the one in Puerto Rico. Anyone know why?) The restaurant is the Taberna de la Divina Pastora, and is full of tourists, arriving on buses. We have music, dancing, a blue cocktail (blue curacao and sprite) a good lunch and a great view!
After lunch, we visited a retirement home. It was beautiful and very well maintained, with quarters for men, for women, and even married couples. Our guide was a married woman living there with her husband and their dog (Not allowed, but permitted for them.) As beautiful and clean and private (church-run) as it was, it was just as depressing as any other retirement home you have probably visited. It is supported by the state, (which means it gets almost no support from the government), so the residents turn over their ration cards to the nuns, and with those the nuns provide for everyone. Donations come through private individuals and the churches nearby.
Without leaving any of our members behind at the retirement home, we squeezed in one last visit for the day – to Colón Cemetery.
The cemetery has a long history, but probably the most memorable fact is that the graves are reused! Of course that isn’t so strange in a family mausoleum, where the older dead are re-positioned in smaller urns to make room for new family members, but this cemetery has a huge area for common graves, too – and you only get to lie in one for two years, before you are swept into an urn and placed in the ossarary . I asked if there was a list of who (2 million plus) was buried there and told yes. BUT, if you want to find someone, you have to know the date of burial; the record is completely handwritten in ledgers. It has never been converted to electronic form so you can search for someone based on his or her name.
The cemetery has tons and tons of white Carrera marble from Italy – it dates from before the revolution. Grand families are buried in grand tombs along the main streets, lesser families in lesser streets and the commoners – somewhere out along the edges? We didn’t really get to wander around, but we did go to Santa Amelia (La Milagrosa) – and walked through the popular ritual of knocking three times, touching the baby’s tush, and walking backwards away from the tomb. The story is that the woman buried in that tomb died in childbirth at a very young age. She was buried with her baby at her feet. When her tomb was opened years later, the baby was in her arms. Now she is a type of popular saint – women hoping for children especially patronize her grave site.
Exhausted, we are finally returned to our hotel. But the day isn’t over yet! Not by a long shot. We’re having dinner at the “Café del Oriente” in the Plaza San Francisco de Asis in Old Havana. Massimo agreed to take those of us with energy to spare on a walk through Old Havana at dusk. I went. I am glad I did, but once we made it to the Café I was really glad to sit down and rest a bit, because we were on our way to the Tropicana for the evening’s entertainment.
The show at the Tropicana was optional. I debated back and forth about going or not going, as I really hate that sort of thing: Women prancing around with almost no clothes on for the titillation of men in the audience. I was assured it wasn’t like that…Well, it was and it wasn’t. I was focusing on the dancing and the outrageous costumes, enjoying the music and feeling thrown back in time. It was easy to imagine myself in that romanticized Havana of the 30s-40s. With a bottle of Havana Club (rum) to share, we all enjoyed the show…some longer than others. Gerry and I stayed to the end, and it wasn’t until I got home and could look at my pictures that I discovered how many tasseled boobs and naked derrieres were part of the show!
Day 4 Wednesday, February 20
Today was our 31st wedding anniversary. Our group leader announced to everyone when we boarded the bus that “we were going to make a stop at the airport to say good-bye to Betsy and Gerry. The night before they had received a call from the Vatican that Betsy had been nominated for sainthood.”…Big laughs (though some people did believe we were leaving the trip…) and I know! It is a toss- up as to which of us is more deserving of sainthood!
We spent the entire morning on the bus, arriving in Cienfuegos at noon. The trip took us through some very beautiful countryside. Remember I mentioned that the bus windows are darkly tinted? Well they gave this gorgeous rust color to the dry foliage of the landscape. Mix that with a little chartreuse here and there, a blue sky and green – it was really lovely. Lots of texture, too.
The drive to Cienfuegos took us from the north coast to the south coast on a diagonal eastward, so we cut through the heat of rural, central Cuba. Make a note: If you go, try to spend some time outside the cities. It is really a beautiful country. (Before going, I had heard that again and again, and I couldn’t think of what would make it so beautiful – I was imagining that it would look just like Puerto Rico. I didn’t think I would find it so beautiful, because I am used to this landscape. But, I was wrong. Cuba doesn’t really look like Puerto Rico at all – Not the cities, not the old parts of the cities, and not the countryside or the beaches…Puerto Rico is beautiful. Cuba is also very beautiful!)
Our hotel was not ready at upon our arrival so we went to the Cienfuegos (former Yacht ) Club for lunch. The building is lovely and the view beautiful. It is now a state owned facility, but still a “private” club. I am not sure who can belong…but if it is like other clubs Zoe told us about, you can belong if you can pay the membership fee. The club functions as a club (that sounds like a no-brainer but some clubs are just restaurants now): There were yachts tied up at the pier, a pool and tennis courts. The building is striking from the street. No pictures because I didn’t find it that beautiful with big tourist buses parked in front!
After lunch, we went for a walk on the Boulevard – a pedestrian area with shops – that is perpendicular to “El Prado” a beautiful tree-lined street (where Carmen’s aunt lives). Later we took our bus to the Benny Moré Art School (Benny Moré was from Cienfuegos) where we were treated to performances by dance and music students. We also visited one of the studios in the art faculty. The portraits done by the students were wonderful. I could even recognize the teacher as one of the models. The art curriculum is a little like a technical school. When a student finishes the 4th year, he or she becomes a licensed professional artist. No university level courses, this is the end of his/her studies.
From the school, we came and checked into our hotel, Jagua. Our trip leader lowered our expectations before we arrived … just to make sure we didn’t expect to find the Ritz – but despite its rustic description the place is okay.
Rather than eat the hotel buffet that is our included diner tonight, Gerry and I opted to go to a local paladar, called el Largarto (the Lizard) to celebrate our anniversary. First however, we have a social call to make. We caught a cab to back to the center of town to visit our friend Carmen’s aunt, Lourdes, and her maid, Olguita. It was a wonderful visit. A more charming, welcoming reception you could not imagine. We also got an explanation of the whereabouts of all the family members and what they are up to and a tour of the house. What a cool house! It was run-down, of course, and some rooms were not used at all, but the “bones” (shall I say) were excellent. A little plaster for repairs and a couple of cans of paint cosmetically would go very far, but as I explained earlier there is just no money for those things. This house was huge…it appeared to have at least 5 bedrooms and four common areas – besides the kitchen, the patio and the garden.
We left with a bag of guineos manzanos (apple bananas) to share with our tour mates.
The cab that took us there, also returned to take us back to the hotel. Because our dinner reservation was at 8:00pm we still had a little time to kill so we went to the hotel bar for a drink. Gerry wanted to try a Havana Club Barrel Proof Rum which he ordered “with a splash of water.” The bar tender said “no.” “With an ice cube then?” The bar tender said “no” again. (“Psst Ger! He wants you to drink it straight!”) So he did, and he was thrilled. An instant convert! The rum was super smooth.
Our dinner at el Lagarto was very romantic ( with 8 of our newest friends at the table next to us!). We took a pedi-cab to get there. That was fun! We ate delicious roast pork at a waterside table that turned out to be too windy and cold (down came the protective shades).
Day 5 Thursday, February 21
Cienfuegos is gorgeous! (I am running out of adjectives here!) It is right on the water, with beautiful sunsets and beautiful dawns; a photographer’s dream! I was too lazy to get up early and go out to take pictures, but I did go out in my pajamas and take pictures from the balcony of my room…Thankfully, no one saw me.
Today was another very full day. We started off with a 90 minute bus ride to Trinidad, another World Heritage site (There are several in Cuba, and even Cienfuegos itself is one.) Trinidad made the list because it is an extremely well preserved example of colonial architecture, having a very high percentage of its historic buildings preserved. The area is also significant because of its link to the sugar industry.
Our first meeting was with the City Historian. He took us through the four distinct periods of architecture that are visible in the city. The place was bubbling with tourists (all arriving, yet again, on big buses like ours). I recommend to get here on your own somehow and spend at least one night. There is so much to see and learn, plenty of museums, and the center city (which is quite small) really begs you to slow down, plop down in a café, and just enjoy being there. We found out later in the day that one of our first photo instructors with National Geographic, David Alan Harvey, spent a good deal of time shooting here. His article appeared in 1988. When I went back to look at the pictures, it was clear that the town hasn’t changed much – which is a good thing!
After the historian, we went for a walk around the main square to see a little of the city. We stopped at a santería temple and got an explanation of Cuban santería, which the priest claimed had very strong ties to the Catholic church. We saw the altar – a figure of the Virgin – with symbols of the sea. I cannot remember which of the orishas is associated with the virgin, nor can I really explain back to you what he told us…It was a bit confusing. Especially the part about being sanctioned by the Catholic church.
We had lunch in a restaurant called Plaza Mayor, which is the name of the main square of the town. Confusingly, the restaurant was not on it! The place was very crowded. The food was served buffet style, in several different locations within the restaurant. It was difficult for me to figure out where to get the food I wanted to eat. I am not a fan of buffets, even when they are outstanding. What was outstanding on this buffet was the homemade ice cream – as much as you want! The other salient memory is that finally I found a green vegetable that was neither shredded cabbage nor cucumber – two foods that I swear I won’t eat again for a year.
After lunch, a horse whisperer (José Muñoz Cocina) met us outside the restaurant and took us to his home (a bed and breakfast) where he has a photography gallery (which we didn’t really get to see) and where he trains horses (and their masters). This is the epitome of the new Cuban entrepreneur! Of course, the most fascinating business is the horse training. Here is a horse psychologist, putting into practice behaviorial techniques for training horses. Of course he has to train the owners, too (though like owners everywhere, I guess, they think they know better.)
Surprise! A horse in the house! And that horse really got off on being in the house, surrounded by people and furniture. Literally! I guess maybe he was bored and rather than just politely stand there like the dutiful trainee he was supposed to be, he decided to give us something to stare at and laugh about later. No dumb ass, that horse.
When David Alan Harvey was in Trinidad shooting the pictures for the article on Trinidad, he stayed with our host and was a great influence on his work.
Following our interesting couple of hours with the horse whisperer, we were granted an hour to walk around the city by ourselves and explore. We found a crafts market in a shady street surround by blank walls of the buildings on either side. I found some things I really liked, and got a chance to talk with the men and women in the market. They knew when I told them I was an American that I could not buy anything to take home, so there was no pressure on me to buy – and I could admire with abandon. I saw jewelry and embroidery using local seeds, and a purse made out of soda/beer can pull tops. I don’t think we even have those anymore in the States. Very nice work!
Gerry and I also climbed to the top of the tower in the Palacio Cantero – a fabulously beautiful building with period furniture. There were restorers actively working while we were there. To get up to the tower, we first climbed two steep sets of narrow, stone stairs and then two stories worth of a dark, tight spiral staircase. Just at the top, we climbed up a short staircase through a very small opening to get out onto the roof. The view was worth it – and the climb back down much easier.
About half way back to Cienfuegos, we made a sudden impromptu stop at a rural health clinic. The doctor was not in, but the nurse showed us around and answered our questions. I found it ironic that free health care does not mean healthy people…the nurse explained that most of the problems they see in the clinic are due to poor nutrition. Diabetes and hypertension are the two biggest problems and they can be traced right to the food rationing. Oh, I forgot! The US embargo is responsible for food rationing. (Sorry for the sarcasm!)
We had some down time when we returned to Cienfuegos before we had to show up for dinner. A breather, yeah!
Dinner was outside at the property next door – the Palacio del Valle – an Arabic fantasy that is quite a work of art. Our dinner was a pig roast with what I think of as real Cuban food – yuca (cassava), rice and black beans pork (and unfortunately the ubiquitous shredded cabbage, cucumbers and tomatoes – which I can no longer bring myself to eat). Our musical accompaniment to dinner tonight is a seven piece band. Two of our group members joined in and played with the band. We all know the words to Guantanamera already so we could sing along.
I wandered around after dinner to see what was going on inside this gorgeous building. There the diners were having some sort of chamber music and a more formal dinner. I was envious. I didn’t know then that we would be having dinner inside the following evening.
Once on our own for the rest of the evening, we joined many of our tour mates at the hotel’s show; Singers (one frenetic little short guy with shoes that seemed too big and turned up at the toes and a woman with a wonderful voice) and dancers (who did a fancy sort of salsa just for watching and then got the audience up on their feet). There are perks to staying in a town with a renowned music school! We had a lot of fun dancing and singing and drinking the night away (Ok,that’s a slight exaggeration. We were probably all in bed by 10:30).
Thanks, everyone. I am glad I seem to have captured what was a wonderful experience for all of us.
I really enjoy reading your stories!
Betsy invites us to “stretch our mentality” as we read about her Cuban adventure. I did and loved seeing the photos which made the experience even more real to my “mind’s eye.” Joan McMurray
Thanks Betsy, we are loving your writing and photos which describe the fascinating trip we shared. You do a wonderful,job of capturing the obvious and the nuances of Cuba. Keep it coming and warm regards to you and Gerry.
Barbara and Mark
Thank you for recapping our trip, Betsy! I knew you would have wonderful photos, but your commentary has allowed me to relive the experience.
I find this whole trip to be fascinating and the pictures are great too. Though it’s hard to translate the shabbiness in the photos.
I did not mean this to be anonymous ( the above comment ) somehow I thought the computer would know its from me. So I will sign this one